Every year at the start of May, an eclectic group of swimming enthusiasts of all ages, shapes and sizes come out of hiding to swim in handicap races throughout the winter. They are the Merewether Mackerels. I became a member of the club last year to find out what it takes to be part of a Newcastle institution that most people of good health think you have to be mad to enjoy and as I’ve found out, it certainly does help.
The Mackerels’ ritual
It’s 8 o’clock on a Sunday winter morning as Mackerels’ president Alan Pickles greets the group and welcomes everyone present. “The water temperature today is 18 degrees,” he says. The group boos and hisses.
“OK. The water temperature is 17 degrees. Are you happy?” Pickles replies. The group cheers. Already, a newbie like myself can tell this group is clearly one-of-a-kind, and may not be inclined to let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.
The rules are simple; you have to be nominated by a Mackerels member to join the club. Heats start at half-past-eight, though there are a few that turn up early to partake in a drink of sweet muscat. They say the drink prepares your body for the shock, but this is a group of kindred spirits that simply enjoy each other’s company.
The club is made up of swimmers of all abilities, so the swimming races are handicapped to make it more fair for everyone. This means swimmers have to nominate the time of their average lap. The faster you swim, the longer you wait before you are allowed to start the race. Anyone who swims half-a-second faster than his or her nominated time is disqualified and the winner of each heat makes the final, where you are allowed to swim as fast as you like.
Members that have been known to give a dodgy time, barely winning their heat and then going on to win the 50- metre final by 25 metres, have become affectionately known by the group as “burglars”.
After the final swim, members head back to the Merewether Baths pavilion. Hot soup and fresh bread rolls are waiting. The Mackerels have a soup roster, and the bar is set pretty high. I’m told if you make a bad soup, you’re off the soup roster. This recurring sense of humour that comes off cold to most is the one thing that keeps the Mackerels warm and dry throughout the colder months.
“What’s that seaweed stuff in the soup?” one member asks. “Seaweed!” another fires. They look at each other sharing a laugh and spoonful of steaming minestrone.
Another Mackerels’ tradition is what’s called a “fine session”. The club uses it to raise money to cover its running costs. Members (and their pets) can get fined for not putting lane ropes in, taking lane ropes out, not swimming, not wearing the proud club colours of blue and yellow, and worst of all - saying the F or C word (freezing and cold). This is strictly prohibited.
Basically, you can and do get fined for anything and everything. A delegated member gives out fines for general breaches of club rules and they cost 20 cents. It may not seem like much, but when you have roughly 30 people chipping five or six times each, it slowly adds up. The floor is then opened to the members. Once again, it’s another chance for this group of characters to give each other a hard time and share a laugh.
Australia has a long history with swimming. From the infamy of William Gocher - a man that openly defied the law by swimming in daylight hours at Manly beach in 1902, to the “bronzed Aussie” lifesavers of today. In Balmain, the local ocean baths are named after Dawn Fraser. Australian swimming has also had its fair share of sporting heroes like Kieren Perkins, Grant Hackett, Susie O’Neill and Ian Thorpe. Winter swimmers may not get the same idolisation, but the resilience and larrikinism that our heroes past have been celebrated for is present in spades in clubs like the Mackerels.
The first winter swimming clubs were formed in Australia in 1959 and began out of summer surf lifesaving clubs. The Winter Swimming Association of Australia states their current membership is estimated at 5000 people belonging to 42 clubs, which includes around 200 Olympians.
The Mackerels hosted the Winter Swimming Association of Australia’s national titles in September. Over 25 clubs competed, with the Mackerels placing sixth.
Club stalwart Chris Pfeiffer has been with the club for 16 years.
“I talk to 20 blokes probably, a week and ask them all to come to Mackerels, but I’m the only one who ever turns up,” he says on a winter morning. “They just don’t want to shock themselves on Sunday morning, but where else can you get a drink on a Sunday morning at 8 o’clock?”
At 18 degrees, the tradesman from Adamstown Heights doesn’t think the water is cold yet, “but it will get colder and there will be challenging days ahead.”
“When you get a southerly and a bit of rain, it will be cold. You will feel cold coming here. You may not even want to get out of bed, but you still do, for some reason that I can’t work out,” Pfeiffer says.
As a life member of the club, Pfeiffer proudly wears a dog’s collar after the swimming has concluded, which other members tell me is a transformation from a “Mackerel” to a “Mongrel” of the club.
Pfeiffer tells the story differently: “When you have a group of blokes, there’s just some people that just will not behave themselves, so they get a dog collar. It takes a lot of hard work to get one.”
When you have a group of blokes, there’s just some people that just will not behave themselves, so they get a dog collar.Chris Pfeiffer
All walks of life
Clint Bryant, a 33-year-old coal miner and recently retired athlete, has just completed 10 years playing waterpolo in the national league competition for another club based out of the Hunter.
“I’ve been a member of the Mackerels for about the same amount of time, probably eight years.”
“I’ve just had a second baby, so the waterpolo career is over, but I’ll remain a Mackerel for a few years yet.”
“I like to keep a bit of fitness through the winter. Friendship and fitness is the key to the Mackerels. It’s the only place I know of where coal miners like myself, lawyers, lifeguards, carpet layers, students, retirees, builders, electricians, plumbers, sons, daughters and grandparents all combine under one banner.”
“I come straight from work. It’s a good recovery.
“I bring my son down here and he loves it. He’s probably too young to feel the, I can’t say the word (cold).”
Bryant shares his sentiment about the Mackerels’ mateship, which is based upon a love of swimming. Pfeiffer said the Mackerels are also a very accepting group. There are currently three generations of the Platt family who swim each and every week.
The youngest member of the club is 11-years-old and the oldest is 98. Pfeiffer said there are also wide ranges of personalities, but he is yet to meet someone who has not been able to fit in.
“Everyone’s different,” Pfeiffer said.
“That’s what the club’s all about. Having a good time, pushing people, swimming your hardest, having fun.”
The inner circle
One Sunday, the surf at Merewether was about eight-feet and breaking out behind the baths and washing over the blocks and into the pool. The handicap races were cancelled but everyone jumps in for a lap or two for what the Mackerels’ call ‘swim only’. After getting dry, one of the members walks out of the members’ change rooms and asks, “Did you win your heat?” and walked away before I had the chance to answer what I didn’t realize was a rhetorical question until I started to answer it.
Keeping up with the Mackerels’ is easier in the water than out of it.
Most people enjoy the solace from salt water and from an outsider’s perspective it’s easy to see why a Sunday sleep-in seems like a much better alternative. I’ve really come to enjoy everything about my weekly 50-metre dash. I may not be rewarded with a win every week but that’s not what it is about. It’s the therapeutic feeling you get after you’ve swam and eaten soup, it’s hard to describe, but it’s not something I’m ready to part with just yet.
It’s not just that, I’ve also met a truly great bunch of people that love to compete, cheat, lie, beg, borrow and steal, but they also don't take things too seriously and encourage everybody to be their own person and lead by example.
Everyone has what it takes to be a Merewether Mackerel within; it’s just a matter of letting go of whatever is holding you back so you can let yourself shine.
Ryan Grubb is a former swimmer, national league waterpolo player and national waterpolo representative. Ryan is also a current member of the Merewether Mackerels winter swimming club.